Yogi Berra was such a fixture, his “Yogi-isms” so celebrated as part of the American vocabulary, that it does him a great disservice to place expressions like “it ain’t over til it’s over” at the top of his legacy.
Those were pure gold, but for younger generations they obscure the fact that Berra, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, lived an extraordinary life that ended, quietly and fittingly, on the 69th anniversary of his debut with the New York Yankees. On that day so many years ago, Berra announced that he was more than some catcher from St. Louis; he was a legendary talent on the field, going 2-for-4 with two RBI — and a home run. He went on to play for 10 Yankees World Series winners and was named American League MVP three times in the early 1950s. A .285 hitter over 19 seasons with the Yankees and Mets (for one season), he was seemingly everywhere during the Yankees’ dynasty — including leaping into the arms of Don Larsen after catching the pitcher’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series.
Because of his constant presence as a player, a manager and a great quote, he somehow managed to become a universally beloved character on a widely despised baseball team because he was always simply Yogi being Yogi, with all that that entailed. Whether he actually said all the things he may or may not have said, it doesn’t really matter. They’re everywhere. According to lawyer and SI.com contributor Michael McCann, his sayings have been mentioned in 124 decisions by federal judges. He is cited more often than any other athlete in “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.”
That’s deceptive, though, because he lived a more heroic life off the baseball diamond. Like thousands of other men, he showed true bravery as a member of the Allied forces that landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. Like so many of them, he gave little in the way of details of that day in later years and a movement to award him the Presidential Medal of Freedom did not succeed even as his health was failing.
As a 19-year-old kid in World War II, he was a Navy gunner on an LCSS (landing craft support, small) boat tasked with protecting Allied troops by firing at Germans during the invasion. “You saw a lot of horrors,” Berra, who was awarded a Purple Heart, told the Associated Press last year on the 70th anniversary of D-Day. “I was fortunate. It was amazing going in, all the guys over there.”
Berra’s contributions to history didn’t end there. He lived at a time of great change, as baseball became integrated. As a petition advocating that he be given the Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, noted last summer: “…[H]e befriended the first black and Latino baseball players in Major League Baseball.”
Only two former ballplayers, Stan Musial in 2011 and Ernie Banks two years later, have received the honor.
“Everybody knows what my Grandpa did on the baseball field and some even know about his time on the battlefield,” Berra’s granddaughter, Lindsay, told Fox News last summer. “I don’t think they know a ton about all the humanitarian work he has done. He’s been an advocate for education,” she added. “He was one of the first players to embrace players across racial lines. He’s really used his fame to embrace people. He helped to push the civil rights movement into the forefront.”
— Lindsay Berra (@lindsayberra) June 9, 2015
The petition received the necessary votes and the White House said in a statement afterward:
“…[T]hroughout his career as a Hall-of-Fame catcher for the New York Yankees and beyond, Yogi Berra has done a lot more than hit and think at the same time. He demonstrated exemplary sportsmanship and character on his way to winning 13 World Series championships as a player and manager, with each new title feeling like déjà vu all over again. He served our country in the U.S. Navy during World War II — including the D-Day invasion, and has established himself as an advocate for civil rights, education, and inclusion of the LGBT community in sports.”
The White House added that, as far as the campaign went, “it ain’t over til it’s over.”
As if those on- and off-the-field accomplishments weren’t enough, Berra also won a feud with Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. When The Boss fired him as manager via proxy, Berra boycotted Yankee Stadium for 14 years. The exile ended only when Steinbrenner made nice by paying a visit to the Yogi Berra Museum and Learning Center in Montclair, N.J. He deserves an award for that, too. “It’s the worst mistake I ever made in baseball,” Steinbrenner said.
Berra became less and less visible a fixture at Yankee Stadium over the last few years, fading from view from a new generation of fans. His health declined and on Tuesday his death came about 18 months after that of his wife of 65 years.
“While we mourn the loss of our father, grandfather and great-grandfather, we know he is at peace with Mom. We celebrate his remarkable life and are thankful he meant so much to so many. He will truly be missed,” his family said in a statement.
A kid he influenced over 20 years ago became a legend himself and offered one of the best tributes to Berra, who was a legendary baseball player and so very much more.
“To those who didn’t know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time,” Derek Jeter wrote on his Players’ Tribune Web site. “To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.”